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Connectivity, Population, and e-Waste

October 27, 2010
Overlay of internet connectivity, global population distribution, and e-waste salvage dumps…

At this instant, there are over 500,000,000[1] people from an estimated 213[2] countries with Facebook profiles with the ability to contact any other user at any time. Today, Wikipedia, an encyclopedic, largely user-maintained website contains 16,000,000[3] articles on almost every imaginable topic. On the Google Inc. program Google Earth, any computer-user in the world can pinpoint a location on the globe, and zoom in to see individual people walking the streets.

It is statistics such as these that have led many to identify the internet as one of, if not the single most promising vector in establishing democratic and horizontal exchange of information, communication, and commerce around the globe. Indeed, when viewed as a conceptual whole and supported by numerical statistics, these claims seem to ring true. However, critical evaluations regarding this massive and multi-faceted network must be based not on sweeping statistics or lofty ideals, but on the deep interconnections, fluxes, and flows of the system itself, manifested in real material conditions. Moreover, we must focus not only on the central hubs of the network, but also on its periphery. We shall examine this in the following paragraphs through both imagined stories and interpreted data, supported by and in conversation with the overlay map provided, comparing global population distribution, internet access, and sites of electronic waste dumping. In contrast to this map, we will place the common discursive ideological map of the internet—a horizontal and equally distributed net of de-centralized nodes.

Brussels, Belgium: 14:48 GMT, 9/10/2010:

26 year old Edmee Vermeulen is driving, travelling from her home in the suburbs of Brussels towards the recycling center. She drives a Japanese car made from parts gathered and assembled in innumerable locations around the globe, including steel from China and the United States, leather from Argentina, and a stereo assembled in Taiwan. The car is propelled by hydrocarbons created by prehistoric plankton photosynthesizing sunlight in a vast sea, that, after millions of years of pressure and chemical transformation, have been extracted by a US-based oil corporation from an Iraqi well, 6 years after the oil field had been conquered by the advancing US military. Her clothes are made of cotton grown in Pakistan and were stitched together in Cambodia. While Edmee waits at a stoplight, she quickly pecks her finger on an internet-equipped telephone, and sends a signal bouncing off of a satellite to an investments trader in New York, who buys up a large number of stocks in a UK security company just contracted by the US government to operate in occupied Iraq. The company will use this money, along with that of other investors, to purchase high-powered semi-automatic weapons that will lead to a controversial series of shootings in approximately three months. Edmee places the phone back on her lap and sips her Guatemalan coffee, accelerating slowly through the grey, misting rain as the traffic light turns green.

Geography seems as though it has been ultimately transcended in Edmee’s world. Here, only a few taps of a wireless keyboard can send almost any commodity desired speeding across the globe to one’s doorstep, or create surges of investment capital that can drastically affect the lives of people on nearly any corner of the planet. Here is a world in which the internet means progress, equality, and knowledge, where it seems as though every fragment of civilizational data has become instantly accessable from anywhere, and everything is possible.

Here, use of internet has become a facet of everyday existence, and almost all of Edmee’s friends can access it with the ease and rapidity that she can. Accordingly, much of her social life revolves around its use, further cultivating a circle of acquaintances who have the same level of access that she herself does, and in turn fossilizing the understanding that this technology is universal. Likewise, news feeds are full of media agencies from her home continent and North America, and most of the material on the web reaffirms her own society’s understandings of history, politics, and philosophy. Reality then becomes lived and reaffirmed, in a large part, through the medium of the internet, and both its expanses and limits become the field into which life and awareness become constrained; at the same moment, these constraints seem non-existent because of the seemingly all-encompassing nature of the network.

On examination of the map, the first and most striking feature is the dense cloud-like web of lines that leap across the Atlantic and fill in the North American continent and European subcontinent. Nowhere else on Earth, it appears, does there exist such intense interconnection, indeed nowhere comes close. The web lends visual support to the implicitly understood yet counter-discursive reality of extreme internet access disparities across the global geography. In this cartographical language, it becomes clear whose trans-geographical friendships can exist and whose cannot, and likewise, whose fledgling business enterprise might compete in the world market and whose stands no chance. Here it appears that contrary to popular discourse, the world is not flat at all, but mountainous, albeit marked by a single cliff’d plateau.

Arviat, Nunavut, Canada: 5:46 CST, 8/10/2010:

17 year old Harper Kritaqliluk is watching a hockey match on his computer. The wind is howling across the tundra outside; it carries dust and small pebbles that pitter against the windows softly during gusts. It is not winter yet, but the days have already grown much shorter and the air has begun to dip below freezing nightly and soon there will be very little day left between the almost endless nights. Harper has grown to resent this arctic land that his parents and grandparents call home, where his ancestors long ago settled. From a young age he has been taught the traditions, values, and arts of the Ihalmiut first nation, his family’s nation, yet these things had recently seemed quaint and outdated, like living in a dream for the sake of the tourists who arrive aboard ferries in the summer to gawk at the animals on the Tundra and the people of Arviat alike. Harper prefers the colorful and fast-moving world in the hockey broadcasts from the great cities of Tortonto, Vancouver, and even as distant as Seattle, where he dreams that he will live, someday.

On our map, Arviat is a small pinpoint on the shore of Hudson Bay. All lines of communication lead south, linking up with the large cities on the St. Lawrence and Pacific Coast. The world of the internet serves as a window into a heavily fetishized world of flashy commodities, powerful media, and regimented regimes of epistemology, buttressed by the impressive material achievements of occidental ‘science.’ Because of its vastness, glamour, and mastery of the art of entertainment, this spectacle becomes the ideal, the one real world, and thereby often a beacon for a sort of religious pursuit.

When compared to the map, one can easily see this process in a spatial framework, as media stream from the occidental Milky Way, to the speckled nodes beyond, though rarely between them. In this process, the history of the occident becomes “world history,” Euro-American culture to be “culture” as a whole, and western capitalist values of individualism, consumption, and hedonism become normalized. In non-occidental regions, entire histories become first discredited, and the lost. The subsequent demise of alternative knowledge bases and epistemic formats pushes occidental cultural history further from competition and towards an ideal of ultimate truth.

Mumbai, India: 7:12 AM GMT+5, 9/10/2010

Varun Roy is leaving the gated community on the way to work now. Sleepy-looking darker-skinned security guards roll open the barbed wire gate and he drives through out onto the boulevard towards downtown, surrounded by buzzing mopeds and small trucks balancing precarious cargo-loads. A moment before he had been in an island of quiet lawns and trees and single-family homes, but now but now he is flying past walls of old cracked-plaster buildings bordered by and integrated into improvised structures of sheet-metal and assorted scrap building materials. Lines of clothing flutter ever so slightly in the yellow morning breeze. It is not long before Varun is in his office. He is in a suit-coat, and has his own office room. On his desktop computer, Varun is working out the details of his company’s construction contract for a canning factory in Nairobi. He bites his pen and takes a break to read the BBC website. The window, seven floors up, looks out on a tangled and dusty city of brown, grey, and green. It is a city full of hunger and dreams. The unemployed wander the streets. Families recline in the shade of shanties by the side of the open sewer. Access to computers is a privilege that many do not have here.

Mumbai is one of many distinct nodal points on the map. Like many, it coincides with a red population center. This nodal urban-centric distribution of internet access is typical of the non-Euro-American world. In contrast to the white blanket of both rural and urban access in the United States and Europe, the rest of the world sees no visible rural access. The power dynamics of access within regions of both rural urban infrastructure, such as that of Mumbai and the surrounding countryside, can be seen very clearly. In a post-colonial global economy where international trade is the life-blood of society, it is interconnectedness that breeds wealth and power. As a fundamental symbol of this interconnection today, the internet becomes very much indicative of power accumulation, visible spatially on the map as points of light springing from urban areas.

Additionally, beyond urban-rural divisions in access, there are strong hierarchies of access within the city itself. Unfortunately, this information does not easily present itself on the face of the map; we must instead tease it out. To understand the concentration of this access within Mumbai’s upper classes, we can compare it with a US city where we assume a large percentage of all residents have internet access, taking into account population and visible connectivity in the map. Orlando, Florida, USA, a city with a population of about 236,000[4] people has an explosion of internet strands far more dense and numerous than Mumbai, the second most populous city on Earth, with a population of 13,663,000[5] residents. Nonetheless, Mumbai is also home to an increasing number of extremely wealthy citizens, along with many of the most prosperous companies on Earth—all, without a doubt, heavy internet-users. This suggests, again, radical disparity of access between the majority laypersons and the city’s wealthy businesspeople, a pattern that seems to be the norm in the new urbanism of the industrializing world.

As Varun reads the internet news relayed through Britain, he reaches back to slide open a window. The room is filled with the muted clamor of the city below, and becomes filled too with the incense of smog. Mixed in too is a subtle but strong odor of melting plastic and metals. Varun is used to it and it blends in with the city for him. Still, it is something distinct. In fact, while Varun does not know it, the very same odor can be found in a number of other South Asian and African cities, usually near large ports. It is the smell of burning computers.

Brussels, Belgium: 15:20 GMT, 9/10/2010:

Edmee arrives at the recycling center with a milk crate nest of wires, containing an old computer, its keyboard and mouse, and a few old cell phones. She unloads the crates carries them to a shed, her scarf flapping in the wind. She tells the man at the recycling center that she thinks it all works and hands him the crate. He nods, stacks it in a pile, and Edmee returns to the car. For Edmee, this it the end of the whole business—in her mind, the computer has vanished into the ether marked by the hazy understanding that it will be given to somebody who needs it. It seems like a noble deed. Edmee knows that many people on Earth lack access to the internet; she wonders how they manage, and is thankful that programs like this exist so that not only can her computer be re-used, but it can go towards helping solve the “digital divide.” It all seems very simple.

The truth is that the shed full of electronics ready for export is largely full of dead and useless equipment. In most European countries and in the United States, disposal of electronic waste requires extra fees to pay for formal dismantling and salvage. In order to avoid paying these fees for donated electronics however, most e-waste collection centers will deliberately mix useless electronics in with working ones to be given for free, under the guise of humanitarianism, to the industrializing world.

Port of Lagos, Nigeria: 12:20 GMT, 23/10/2010:

Edmee’s computer has now traveled farther from Belgium than she ever has. After weeks in a warehouse, it was loaded into a red shipping container along with heaps of other post-consumer electronic material, and lifted onto a Maersk container ship in Antwerp. After 14 days at sea travelling southward and then east around West Africa, the ship docked in Lagos at approximately 2:10 GMT on the 23rd of October. The crate has been unloaded and its contents are being sorted now for working machines. In a cramped warehouse near the port, Greg Uwa Balewa wears latex gloves and a surgeon’s mask and meticulously disassembles Edmee’s computer. He’s found some problems with it and is looking for a simple fix. He scratches his head and wipes sweat from his brow. It looks beyond repair, maybe damaged by careless packing on the ship. This is no surprise to Greg Uwa Balewa, as the vast majority of these old computers are broken and completely useless. He sighs and begins removing working parts. By 14:00 GMT he is finished and tosses the scrap into a pile along with other unusable rubbish.

Lagos dump, Lagos, Nigeria: 10:25 GMT, 27/10/2010:

A garbage truck bounces across the uneven plains of what used to be a wetland; the earth here is now scorched and littered with heaps of trash. Around the broader landscape, jet-black columns of smoke rise from smoldering piles. In what seems a completely arbitrary location, the truck halts slowly and begins to dump its load. It is a fresh shipment of useless electronic parts. Edmee’s computer made it into this mix; with a cacophonous roar it spills out onto the black silt at the edge of the new pile.

Immediately there are people swarming on the spot. Mostly they are children, many barefoot, clamoring over the heap before the truck has even left. They are pulling selected pieces from the pile—wires are a prized find, but computer chips are good too. Ikenna Igwe is 13 years old. He is sifting skillfully though the pile and gets his hands on a coil of copper wires and Edmee’s computer and pulls them to the side. He stacks them together with some loose pieces of polystyrene for fuel, and lights them. The flames quickly engulf the mess despite the flame-retardants in the computer. The smoke is black and smells bitter but also at times sweet as it blows over Ikenna. The plastic and polystyrene fire begins to work away at the computer-parts and wire housing—traces of a whole host of chemicals begin to vaporize in the smoke: Lead, selenium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, mercury, (apparently defunct) flame retardants such as antimony trioxide and polybromine, and a small amount of arsenic. Ikenna tries not to inhale it, but the air is thick with the mixture everywhere in the dump. He leaves the fire to look for more parts, a moment later adding a remote control and a cellular phone. When the fire has died down, he will scrape off the charred residue and collect the metal to sell. Today he might make $2 from his work, enough to feed his mother and baby sisters today.

It is truly impossible to accurately represent these dumping sites and the related salvage work cartographically. On the map, this whole story must fit into an “x.” Yet while we cannot see Ikenna Igwe standing amongst towers of toxic black smoke from so far away, we can learn from the map as it is. First, one will notice that dumpsites seem to be located in and around some of the world’s largest population centers. One might conclude that this is because it is here where large ports can unload bulk quantities of potentially re-usable electronics, and where they are needed. In part this is true. Moreover however, these places are certainly the most effective locations for informal economies of salvage, as it is here where large populations of first or second generation urban-dwellers find themselves, most often without work or income, and willing to do anything for two dollars’ worth of food. Indeed, the exploitation of this unemployed labor force seems to work perfectly for the material economics of the e-waste trade; there are people in need of work, and the free market provides.

Possibly the most striking aspect of the dumpsites’ distribution is their removal from major flows of internet activity. The irony is potent here, as the very people who are left out of the technological web of communications are those who end up suffering from the chemical complexity of the machines needed to run it. While electronic waste does end up in landfills in the United States and Europe, a great deal still follows this journey to the industrializing world to provide those like Ikenna there with their toxic toehold in the global economy.

The image that comes to mind with the words ‘internet,’ ‘world wide web,’ ‘telecommunication,’ and others is a spectacular one—clean, cool, blue, lit up in a polycentric formation of circuits and diodes, maybe even with a symbolic set of human hands of different skin-tones, clasped. This map holds a strong ideological presence for the culture of internet-users around the globe—for Edmee and Varun and countless others. Our map however, tells a different story. This one is black instead of blue, stained with the suit of burning computer casings and wire-housings. It is barefoot and hot. It is anything but flat. It cannot show us everything, but it teaches us much. It shows us that even our crowning technological jewels are not unproblematic in the least. It is a map across life experiences and classes and across continents and oceans that some may transgress in mind and body and that others cannot. This map is human.


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